During my work placement at the Conservation Department of The Bowes museum this summer, I had the opportunity to work on an anonymous portrait that had, over years in storage, accrued a thick layer of dirt that resulted in a distortion of the colour scheme and overall visual integrity of the image.
Although not much is known about the history of the painting, and both the sitter and the painter remain anonymous, the significance of this portrait lies within the costume and it was possibly bought by Joséphine Bowes for the museum’s collection, who had a known passion for fashion. The beautifully detailed lace suggests that it was made in the region of Normandy or Burgundy and the costume is indicative of the mid-18th century.
There is evidence that the painting has undergone treatment before. It has been lined, which means that at some stage a second canvas was attached to the back in order to stabilise the original support, a process which has become much more rare in modern day art conservation since less interventive methods are now preferred. Furthermore, despite large areas of paint loss, overall the paint layer is in a stable condition with no signs of flaking, which makes it possible that it has already been consolidated. The damage was likely caused by poor storage conditions, since the back of painting shows extensive staining, suggesting water damage.
Surface cleaning is an integral part of the conservation process and is usually the first task for the conservator. For this painting in particular, it was essential, since the dirt had completely obscured some smaller details.
Traditionally, a variety of solvents have been used to get rid of any unwanted surface layers. However, in recent years, solvent gels have gained in popularity within conservation. They have a number of advantages – due to slower evaporation rates, they not only possess increased contact time with the surface, often making them more effective, but are also much safer for the conservator, an indication of the importance of health and safety within the profession. For this painting, a number of standard gel preparations were tested in small areas to determine the one that was the most suitable in this case. After testing one gel in particular which contains a chelating agent, which works by sequestering metal ions present in the dirt, showed the best results.
Once the cleaning method is chosen, work can be carried out in small areas one by one, until the entire picture is clean and ready for further conservation.
It is one of the most visually appealing treatments and, as can be seen in the progress photos, revealed beautiful nuances of shading and colour, various small decorative features that had not been visible due to the thick layer of dirt. The delicate nature in which the lace has been depicted could be seen again. However, it also became clear that there is a lot of further work to be done – many areas of paint have been lost which will need to be filled and retouched in order to restore the overall aesthetic quality of the portrait and then varnished in order to protect the paint layer.
Although the treatment of this portrait is still in progress, the first step in the conservation process has thus far yielded great results.
Text and images by: Justina Gedgaudaide
Supervisor: Jon Old, Head of Conservation at The Bowes Museum